WRITTEN BY DR MICHAEL SALLA ON DECEMBER 5, 2013. POSTED IN SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
On December 4, the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology of the U.S. Congress held a session discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life and what should be done to find space aliens. Titled: Astrobiology: The Search for Biosignatures in Our Solar System and Beyond” the session lasted 90 minutes. The meeting was chaired by Lamar Smith of Texas and featured three prominent astrobioligists from NASA, MIT and the Library of Congress. The questions asked by House members were rather general and vague, sometimes descending into the ridiculous. Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Tex)asked the panel: “Do you think there’s life out there and are they studying us — and what do they think of New York City?” Some members of the Democratic Party criticized the meetings as a waste of time. So why did the House hold this meeting at all, and why now?
The answer according to most astrobiologists is that the discovery of exoplanets makes it certain that there are millions, if not billions of earth like planets capable of hosting life in our galaxy alone. A recent statistical paper found that 22% of sun like stars may host habitable planets. Given the high unlikelihood that so much cosmic real estate would be devoid of life that has shown itself to be so robust on Earth, astrobiologists have basically reached a consensus that it is a only a matter of time before alien life is found. This was the observation of Bill Posey, Republican of Florida who said: “You’ve pretty much indicated [the discovery of] life on other planets is inevitable…. It’s just a matter of time and funding.” Posey and other members acknowledged that there needs to be more funding for NASA to build better space telescopes to find exoplanets and support detection programs like SETI to find intelligent alien life out there. Dr Stephen Dick from the Library of Congress challenged the current separation between detecting microbiological and intelligent extraterrestrial life, and called for a renewal of funding for SETI:
In addition to a renewed search with the latest technology, the reinstatement of funding for SETI would allow a systematic examination of these intriguing questions. It would also repair the artificial programmatic divorce between the search for microbial and intelligent life, which, despite engaging different scientific communities, are part of the same research problem. And I believe SETI would be supported by the public, which as always is interested in life beyond Earth, whether microbial or intelligent.
Earlier in May a subcommittee of the House Science Committee heard evidence of the latest astronomical findings concerning exoplanets, and the need to continue funding such research. There are many congressional members sympathetic to NASA and its budgetary needs despite the strict fiscal conservatism of the Republican Party that has led to cut backs in NASA funding. The White House has submitted a budget for NASA of $17.7billion for 2014, which is a slight decrease from 2012. It is not certain that NASA will even get this which is a worry to its supporters.